Updated: Mar 21, 2018
To be able to afford her journey back to Korea and her birth family, Ellie made the choice to live and work as a teacher in Jeonju. She shares her experiences of a year in Korea.
What made you decide to move to Korea and teach English?
After going to Korea and meeting my birth family for the first time in 2013, I was in a state of flux. There wasn’t anything wrong with my life in Australia, but I couldn’t stop thinking about Korea. I was obsessed – I watched loads of videos about Korea, obsessively listened to Kpop, watched Korean TV shows, cooked Korean food all the time and probably annoyed all of my friends by talking nonstop about Korea. I dreamed of the glitzy neon lights of Korea and the smells of food from every corner.
As Chuseok, Lunar New Year and my relatives’ birthdays went by, I missed my birth family intensely. I needed to go back to Korea. I couldn’t afford a holiday, so I looked into teaching. That way, I would actually get paid to be in Korea and also take my time exploring the country and meeting my relatives. Besides, I’ve always wanted to try living overseas. I might as well try the country where I have friends and family. The idea of leaving my friends, family and boyfriend for a year was incredibly daunting, but I knew that I would have felt much worse if I didn’t go.
How was life in Jeonju?
My application was accepted in the TALK program, which places undergraduates and the inexperienced in rural Korean schools. I was placed in Jeonju. Jeonju is the semi-rural capital city of Jeollabukdo. It certainly has its charms. There’s traces of old Korea around every corner. The Hanok Village is a gorgeous area to lose yourself in. I’ve spent lots of money in Gaeksa, the downtown shopping area. There’s hundreds of little alleyways and neighbourhoods with charming, unexpected discoveries. With several big department stores, you can buy almost everything you could ever need in Jeonju. Everyone raves on about Jeonju bibimbap – the quality of Korean food in general in Jeonju is top-notch.
But Jeonju is very small. Within a few months, I was already bored of it and had seen everything I would ever want to see. The general English level in Jeonju is a lot lower than cities like Seoul. The expat community is tiny, cliquey and everyone either seemed much younger or much older than I am. So on most weekends, I would go to another city – usually Seoul – to see friends and my birth family. Luckily, it’s in the middle of the country, so traveling to another city only took a few hours.
What was the best/worst thing about living/teaching in Korea?
Korea is a fascinating country. I was very rarely bored. There’s plenty to eat, see and do. Another city is only a bus or train ride away. I adore both traditional Korea and shiny, glitzy modern Korea. I’ve learned so much about culture and history just simply from traveling around and talking to Koreans. Travelling was my favourite part of living in Korea – there was always a festival, a party or a new place to explore every weekend.
But living in Korea is also exhausting. Trying to communicate with people who speak a different language to you is very tiring. . There’s so many thoughts in my head as I go about my day to day life here. How would I have coped as a kid in the Korean school system? How would my personality have come across if I had grown up expressing myself in Korean? And so on. But perhaps that’s just because I’m an overthinker. Koreans themselves seem exhausted too, constantly running around from task to task.
Spending time with my birth family is wonderful, but I’ve been known to pass out on my Umma and Appa’s floor after breakfast just simply from talking to them all too much.
Another downside to living in Korea was that winter was awful. I grew up in Brisbane and could not cope with -5 days. I like going for walks around the city but in winter it was literally too painful for me to do that.
What was unexpected?
I had no idea what teaching would be like. A lot of people say “just go overseas and teach English” like it’s an easy way to get a cheap holiday. But planning lessons is much harder than I thought, especially because my school thought I’d be better off just creating my own lessons instead of giving me a curriculum! I was really determined to do a good job, even though I’m not a teacher by profession.
I assumed Korean kids were really well-behaved and studious – but they’re not. They’re hyper, fight a lot and like making poo jokes just like every other kid in the world. But even though they drove me insane, seeing their English improve was so fulfilling to me. The kids who actually wanted to learn English and participated in my classes would brighten up even my worst days. I ended up caring about them a lot, much more than I thought I would.
Did you connect with the adoptee community in Korea?
Most adoptees in Korea are based in Seoul, so it was a bit hard to really connect with the community. But sometimes I’d go to Seoul if there was a special adoptee event happening, like the GOAL concert. Being an adoptee – not a foreigner or a gyopo, but somewhere in between – seems difficult at times. There aren’t many Aussie adoptees in Korea, but nevertheless it’s nice to be around people who understand you.
What advice would you give to other adoptees thinking about moving to/teaching in Korea?
If I was to do it again, I’d live in Seoul or Busan. Living in a small Korean city is just too hard if your Korean language skills aren’t very high.
Learn to read Hangeul and learn how to use Naver or Daum Maps. These maps tell you what buses and trains to catch, and substantially improve your independece. I would also recommend learning basic survival Korean before you come, like how to order food, buy things at the shops, catch taxis, etc. Keep learning while you’re here – living in Korea is the best way to practise!
Take what “foreigners” say with a grain of salt. You’re going to have a very different experience to your average white person who has no personal ties to Korea. Some foreigners here have a very negative view of Korea and Koreans, and I wish I hadn’t listened to them in the beginning because it made me worry too much.
Koreans aren’t as hostile to adoptees as I imagined they were. Many young Koreans have met adoptees before, or at least know what they are. I ended up chatting to taxi driver ajeoshis who were interested in my story. Koreans aren’t like Westerners – they won’t bombard you with a million questions at once. But if you meet up with them regularly, they might ask a question every now and again. I’m the kind of person who would rather talk about things than be awkwardly quiet about it, so I’m happy to answer their questions. I’ve heard some adoptees in Seoul have had bad experiences with other Koreans, which is unfortunate. Before I left to go to Korea, I said to one of my Australian friends that I was worried about how Koreans would react to me and that I was just going to keep my adoption a secret. She said something like “how else are they going to learn about adoptees if you don’t talk about it?” I realised she was right. Sometimes talking about being an adoptee is annoying – but on the other hand, talking about it openly is a way to educate Koreans about ourselves. However, I didn’t mention to any of my students and fellow teachers that I’m adopted. I don’t like telling them too much about my personal life anyway. They seem to understand the fact that I’m Korean-born but grew up in Australia. I told the older ones that I’m learning Korean, so they help me out sometimes – which is sweet. Except for the little ones – even up until I left, they chattered away to me in Korean!
What did you learn from your year in Korea?
I became a braver person. I learned to travel alone. I learned how to quickly make new friends. I’m a dreadfully fussy eater, but I tried raw stingray and survived. I went bungee jumping. I’ve sorted out money matters here with nobody to help me except for my shoddy Korean skills. I proved to myself that I am able to survive in another country.
I learned a lot about Korean families and relationships. I learned that I feel at home in both Brisbane and Seoul, but strangely not in Jeonju (where I spent most of my time) or Geoje (where I was born). I learned what I like and what I don’t like. I learned a bit of Korean. Not a lot, but enough to be able to speak to my birth family without an interpreter.